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Harper, Henry John Chitty


Bishop, primate

This biography, written by Colin Brown, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Henry John Chitty Harper was the first Anglican bishop of Christchurch, from 1856 to 1890. From 1868 until 1890 he was also primate of the Anglican Church in New Zealand. He was baptised at Holy Trinity Church in Gosport, Hampshire, England, on 9 January 1804, the second son of Dr Tristram Harper and his wife, Mary Jellicoe. Theirs was a devoutly Christian home.

Harper attended Hyde Abbey School, Winchester, where, as later at Oxford, he excelled at sport rather than study. He was awarded a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford, graduating BA (third class) in 1826 and MA in 1834. Harper returned to teach at Hyde Abbey but quickly accepted a post as tutor to the two sons of Sir Charles Henry Coote of Castle Cuffe, Queen's County, Ireland,and later accompanied them to Eton College.

During the years at Eton Harper discovered his vocation and adopted a more strictly religious style of life. He made a considerable impact on Eton and its associated parish, and formed a friendship with George Augustus Selwyn. On 12 December 1829 at St Maurice, Winchester, Harper married Emily Wooldridge, whose father was a lawyer and registrar of the diocese of Winchester. They had 15 children during a long and happy married life.

Appointed to a 'conductship' or chaplaincy at Eton, Harper was ordained deacon on 10 April 1831, and priest on 17 June 1832. In 1840 Eton College presented Harper to the living of Stratfield Mortimer with an income of £173 a year. To support his family he took private pupils. He procured the services of a curate, reorganised arrangements for music, and restored the fabric of the church. The communion service was celebrated monthly and saints' days were marked by a service at 11 a.m.

In 1854 Selwyn approached Harper about the bishopric of Christchurch. Harper had recently refused the offer of the parish of Isleworth for 'pecuniary reasons'. He made inquiries about the adequacy of the £800 stipend that was being offered, the likelihood of suitable suitors for his daughters, and the possibility of preferment in England. After receiving an invitation from Canterbury churchpeople, he accepted. On 10 August 1856, shortly before leaving for New Zealand, he was consecrated bishop by the archbishop of Canterbury. He was also awarded an honorary DD by his university.

Harper arrived in Lyttelton on the Egmont on 23 December 1856. At this time Anglicans in Canterbury were leaderless and disheartened. Finance was inadequate and some clergy had left while others were supporting themselves by secular employment. Other denominations, notably Wesleyans, were forging ahead. By the late 1870s the Anglican church in Canterbury was well established. Its ministrations extended throughout the area, its financial base was stronger and the number of its clergy and church buildings had increased substantially. Harper did not effect these improvements single-handedly, but his clear sense of priorities, his travels through the diocese, his administrative ability and his character were crucial to the consolidation of Anglicanism in the diocese of Christchurch.

As early as 1858 Harper had become interested in the project to build a cathedral, and in 1862 he undertook to donate to this cause £50 a year for the rest of his life. The cornerstone was laid on 16 December 1864 and Harper dedicated the nave on 1 November 1881. The project nearly foundered during periods of economic downturn and the present site was almost sold off. Harper's persistence was important, and his opposition to a parish church functioning as a cathedral ensured that Christchurch alone among Anglican cathedrals in New Zealand has no parish attached to it.

Harper regarded parish schools as essential to the church's task but, as subsidies to denominational schools were phased out, they were forced to close. Christ's College, of which Harper was warden and in which he took a keen interest, was buttressed by endowments and survived. Initially Harper reacted strongly to the Education Act 1877, but by March 1878 it was clear from a pastoral newsletter that he recognised the difficulties legislators had faced and he stressed other ways by which Christian teaching might still be given. Harper was active in founding the University of New Zealand; he served on the council and senate from 1871 to 1876. He also helped in the establishment of Canterbury College and was on the board of governors from 1873 to 1890.

Harper's episcopate was not free of controversies. The church's constitution had given control of all church property to trustees, who were to be appointed by the General Synod. This principle was resisted in Christchurch, where clergy and laity boycotted the General Synod of 1862, rejected a suggested compromise and hinted at separation. At the General Synod of 1865 an agreement was reached and dioceses were subsequently allowed to appoint their own trustees.

In 1886, under an amendment to the Property Assessment Act 1885, church lands became taxable. In 1879 the Church Property Trustees had borrowed £50,000 in England, secured by debentures and a mortgage held by three Canterbury residents. The trustees thought that the debenture holders should pay the tax but Harper felt that the diocese was morally obliged to do so. The New Zealand Court of Appeal held the mortgagees liable. Harper referred the matter to synod. The trustees were directed to pay, but, after a legal opinion, they refused. The issue was not resolved until after Harper's resignation but the agreement was along the lines which he had suggested.

A dispute following the institution of the Reverend H. E. Carlyon to the parish of Kaiapoi on 6 June 1875 concerned the introduction of Anglo-Catholic ritual and teaching. Proceedings dragged on from November 1875, when Harper appointed a commission of inquiry, until 23 November 1877. Then, backed by the diocesan standing committee and an ecclesiastical court decision, Harper removed Carlyon from his appointment. Throughout the dispute Harper was mindful of the need to maintain a supply of clergy from England. He wanted to introduce some diversity in liturgical practice, and to ensure that peace and justice prevailed. Low church fanaticism, criticism within the diocese and the pertinacity of Carlyon did not make Harper's task easier.

Harper attended the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 (and went again in 1878). In 1868 he was elected primate and presided capably over seven general synods. As primate and as bishop of Christchurch he was at the centre of a dispute over the Reverend H. L. Jenner's claim to the bishopric of Dunedin. New light, some of it unfavourable to Harper, has been thrown on the controversy by the publication in 1984 of Jenner's journal of his visit to New Zealand in 1868–69. Jenner was selected in 1865 by the archbishop of Canterbury to be bishop of Dunedin and he was consecrated the following year. This was contrary to the wishes of churchpeople in Dunedin, and, perhaps, to the terms of Selwyn's request. The full story is not known as crucial correspondence is now missing. Partly at Harper's urging it was decided to accept Jenner as bishop. However, when it became known that Jenner was an Anglo-Catholic ritualist, events took a new turn. Despite Jenner's assurance that he would be discreet in such matters, and Harper's urging that such assurances should be taken as genuine, agitation increased. In October 1868 the General Synod, at the behest of a committee chaired by Harper, called on Jenner to withdraw. In April 1869 the Dunedin synod, chaired by Harper, refused to accept Jenner. Jenner did not give up easily. He was supported by the English bishops, who insisted that he was the first bishop of Dunedin. Nevertheless, Harper strongly defended the actions taken and the autonomy of the New Zealand church.

Harper's role in the controversies over Carlyon and Jenner raises questions about the effect of the Oxford movement on his thinking. His time at Oxford pre-dated the movement but during his years at Eton and in conversation with Selwyn, Harper was probably influenced by Tractarian thinking. This is indicated by the change in his views on baptismal regeneration, his adoption of a disciplined style of life, the changes he made at Stratfield Mortimer, his avowed belief in the antiquity and authority of the ministry of bishop, priest and deacon, and, perhaps, his insistence that clergy should not engage in secular employment. Although relatively tolerant in liturgical matters Harper may have been anxious about 'Romanising' tendencies. His brother George became a Roman Catholic priest and his son George married a Roman Catholic, creating tension but no rift within the family.

The mainstay of the family was Emily Harper. She was an effective manager of large households and a kindly and graceful person. It appears that she was sometimes more cautious than her husband and she played a part in the careful inquiries made before they emigrated. She was active in social and charitable activities until her last years, which were marred by illness leading to her death on 10 June 1888. Harper resigned as bishop of Christchurch in 1890; he died on 28 December 1893.

Although without extraordinary distinction Harper was thoroughly competent. His activities were guided by his dutifulness, sincerity, steadfastness of purpose, and personal holiness. In later years he sensed that change was needed and he was succeeded by Churchill Julius who had a livelier interest in social and theological matters. But Harper, at the height of his powers, made an important contribution to Anglicanism in New Zealand. Practical considerations played a large part in his decision to emigrate but, once in Canterbury, Harper devoted his energies wholeheartedly to his adopted country and seems to have neither expected nor desired opportunities to return to England.

How to cite this page:

Colin Brown. 'Harper, Henry John Chitty', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1h8/harper-henry-john-chitty (accessed 23 July 2024)